Hawking Up Hairballs

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Robert Fisk

I've been reading Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. Fisk has been a Middle East correspondent for thirty years, and this book details the history of the region during the period, from Algeria all the way over to Afghanistan. However, it's a long book, over a thousand pages. I'm finding it to be a bit of a slog, but it's worth it.

The Great War that Fisk refers to in his title is World War One. Fisk's contention is that all of the difficulties that have occurred in the Middle East flow from the political decisions made by the victorious Western powers at the end of that war. The Ottoman Empire had collapsed but, rather than allowing the people of that region to decide their own futures, the British and French forced a political solution upon them that suited their own interests. At the time, the influence of the United States was benign, and Wilson actually favored allowing those in the Middle East to determine their own fates through a truly democratic process. Unfortunately, he didn't prevail and, after World War Two, when it became clear just how key the Middle East was in terms of oil, the US got its hands dirty too.

Until I started reading this book, I hadn't realized how much of recent history I've forgotten. For example, I had forgotten just how horrific the Iran-Iraq War was. Nobody knows for sure just how many soldiers from the two countries died in the war, but the best estimate is that it was a million. It was fought much like World War One in Europe, with elaborate trench systems and mass attacks. And gas. I knew that Sadaam Hussein had used nerve gas on those Kurdish villages, but I hadn't realized just how extensive the Iraqi use of chemical warfare was. Fisk describes touring a battlefield a few days after one of these attacks. Hundreds of dead Iranian soldiers were lying there, all of them with dark stains in the crotches of their pants. That was from the urine. Nerve gas makes you pee yourself. There isn't anything truly sane about war, but some of the scenes described by Fisk go beyond what one could even imagine. There are trainloads of boys and old men, Iranians who have volunteered to walk the battlefield, thus giving their lives to explode Iraqi mines prior to Iranian attacks. Fisk describes them as clutching their Korans on their way to the front, most of them happy and smiling. They're convinced that they will soon be in paradise.

In Europe after World War One, there was the sense that they'd seen enough of war, that it was all just mad butchery. In fact, it is generally agreed that the French didn't put up more resistance to Hitler's invasion of their country because they thought it was going to be like the previous war and they just couldn't face the prospect of that kind of slaughter again. Fisk traveled extensively in Iran after their war with Iraq, and he reports that, contrary to what he expected, there was little of this kind of war weariness. With few exceptions, the Iranians that he talked to were proud of their country's repulse of Iraq, and they considered those who had died as true heroes. That should give pause to those who favor an American attack on Iran. After reading Fisk's book, I think such an attack would have grave consequences, in Iraq and around the world, and for a long time too. Those who favor it seem to think that, if the US military can bomb Iran back into the Stone Age, the influence of the ayatollahs would wane, and a Western-style democracy would emerge. As Fisk points out, the Iran-Iraq war forged the new Islamic nation in Iran, and it now has deep roots, especially in the countryside and in the impoverished ghettoes of the cities.

Reading Fisk, one despairs of any solution in the Middle East and, by solution, I mean a change where everyone can live in peace, according to their own lights. In so many instances, the most extreme elements have prevailed. Take the situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. As Fisk makes abundantly clear, it is the Israelis who are responsible for the violence. They are basically doing what the United States government did to the native Americans, stealing their land and forcing them onto reservations. Given that they have no other viable alternatives, it is not surprising that the Palestinians have resorted to suicide bombings. At first these were directed at military targets, barracks and such. Fisk has no problem with that, and neither do I, but what is the point in setting off bombs that mainly kill civilians? Fisk put the question to a couple of Palestinian guerilla leaders and the answer he got was always the same. They would point out that the Israelis indiscrimate use of missiles, bombs and artillery also killed innocent civilians. That was true enough, but it doesn't justify replying in kind. I came away from that chapter wishing a plague upon both their houses, though I shouldn't have. The initiative is with the Israelis and the violence would likely end if they would comply with UN Resolution 242, which calls for them to withdraw from the Palestinian lands seized in the 1967 War.

This book has caused me to again ponder a question that I have asked myself before. What is a people supposed to do when another power seeks to impose its will on them, especially when it is a case like the Palestinians against the Israelis, or the Iraqis who are determined to expel the US? Traditional warfare is not possible and, in the case of guerilla warfare, it seems that the most extreme elements come to the fore. They are most often just as bad as those they oppose. Some people would suggest the sort of collective non-violence favored by Gandhi, but that only works in certain historical circumstances. When the oppressing power is determined and willing to use whatever violence is necessary, such techniques won't work. If the British had seized Gandhi and his top aides and "disappeared" them, what would have happened to his mass movement? Most likely, it would have dissolved, but the British were of two minds about staying in India, and Gandhi's movement served to strength the hand of those in British ruling circles who favored withdrawal.

So, in the end, though I recommend Fisk's book, it's not likely to leave you feeling upbeat about the future of the region. Of course, there's no reason to, at least for the short and medium terms. So much the worse for the poor bastards who live over there, but it is us and our children who are likely to reap the whirlwind.


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